Last month, I attended a two-day conference on regulatory reform
and international standards at the OECD(1) in Paris. I also met
with the U.S. Ambassador to the OECD and gave a small tutorial
to some 14 Foreign Service officers at the United States Embassy.
It was an interesting trip, and it gave me a lot to think about.
At the OECD meeting I listened to trade policy officials, regulators,
people from standards bodies, business groups, and others discussing
international standards in the context of the triennial review
of the WTO TBT(2) Agreement that is scheduled for this year.
The WTO TBT Agreement is an important document, and I plan to
explore it in more detail in a subsequent article, but simply
put, it prescribes the use of international standards as a deterrent
to barriers to international trade. It also obligates its member
governments to use international standards as the basis for technical
regulations (with notable exceptions). Dialogue and debate is
particularly interesting in a world body like the WTO, because
participants views are influenced by history, cultural peculiarities,
and ideologies. To complicate it further, WTO members are governments,
each with a political agenda. It is a forum where agreement is
hard-wonand the TBT Agreement is admittedly an accomplishment.
But the underlying principle of binding its members to recognized
international standards is not a panacea for unfair trade practices.
There are limits to what we can do with this principle because
it presupposes the solution to every problem. It places the cart
before the horse. What do we do, for instance, with experience
gained, opportunities afforded by innovation, and advances of
technology that cannot easily make their way into international
standards? What do we do with the better ways we find of doing
things that the international system is not ready for? What do
we do with the cutting edge of technology, or the ability to make
rapid revisions when we cannot fit them into the recognized international
system? We opt for one of the loopholes in the Agreement, or we
simply dont comply. It is a telling situation when two out of
three of the worlds greatest economic powers, the United States
and Japan, are experiencing difficulties implementing this Agreement.
A vibrant economy and a government that provides a high degree
of health and safety and a viable, sustainable environment for
its citizens needs more than a principle, or predetermined solutions,
or a label that says international and therefore free from obstacles
to trade. It needs the right to choose the best for its people.
If that is a recognized international standard, so be it. If it
is something else, so be it as well. I believe standards should
facilitate trade, not inhibit it, and I dont believe standards
should be used as unnecessary obstacles to international trade.
But we need to think about how we want to achieve that. I cant
speak for others and for other governments, but as an American,
I cant imagine a regime without choices. And as a standards professional,
I cant imagine formulating the solution before I understand the
problem. And yet, it seems as if this is exactly what has happened.